Kansas City Chiefs players received a card in each of their lockers ahead of their most recent game.
The card provided information about a local person, a local veteran of the armed forces who never came home. This gave each player the opportunity to learn a little about a complete stranger who made the ultimate sacrifice for the United States of America.
On Sunday, Nov. 6, Chiefs players wore a custom-made hooded sweatshirt with the name of his assigned veteran stitched onto the front right chest. The gesture coincided with the beginning of the National Football League’s “Salute to Service” initiative, which runs throughout November.
Little did second-year wide receiver Chris Conley and veteran fullback Anthony Sherman know they would have the opportunity to meet the family of the men they honored before the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. On Monday, Nov. 7, each one took a trip into Platte County — Conley to Park Hill School District’s Plaza Middle School in Kansas City and Sherman to rural Weston, Mo. — to make emotional presentations.
“I’ve seen the signs going to St. Joe for training camp,” Sherman said after presenting the Farnan family with the No. 42 sweatshirt he wore in honor of U.S. Army SPC Colby Farnan, who died at the age of 22 in 2005 while serving in Iraq. “But no, it didn’t matter if it was four hours, five hours. No time was going to say I wasn’t going to come today and show them how much their son has done for me and to just hear their stories.”
Gage Unger mouthed the words, “I love him,” when he heard that Conley was the special guest for his classmates on Monday afternoon. The 11-year-old sixth grade student at Plaza Middle School didn’t know the Chiefs wide receiver came to see him.
While speaking to dozens of students in the school’s media center, Conley — born in 1992 at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, the son of 20-year U.S. Air Force veteran Charles Conley — spoke to the importance of the military in his life. He then produced his custom-made sweatshirt and called up a surprisingly stoic Gage Unger to receive the item on his family’s behalf, catching him completely off guard.
Cpl. David Unger of the U.S. Army was killed in October of 2006 at the age of 21 while serving in Baghdad, Iraq.
“Initially, the first things that goes through my mind is the gravity of the situation and how awesome it is we have the opportunity to do something like this,” Conley said. “It’s not often that the league allows us to branch out and do things outside of game days, and when they give us the opportunity to go out and talk to people whose lives have affected other lives, it’s huge. It’s monumental, and this is an awesome opportunity.
“We got to take a small peek into their lives and who they were, and it made wearing these before the game so much more personal.”
Laura Unger, Gage’s mom and widow of David, along with her mother Misty Smith and her mother-in-law Diana Pitts were on hand for the ceremony.
After the presentation, Conley signed the jersey at the top of the No. 7 on his No. 17 hoodie and gave it back to Gage. David Unger was deployed overseas for much of Gage’s life, and the family used the opportunity to deliver a powerful message.
Conley reminded Gage that his father would always be there with him as he continued to grow up.
“It’s just really important in Gage’s life,” Laura Unger said. “I think it gave him a boost of confidence. That’s what I was here to see.”
Laura and David were graduates of Leavenworth (Kan.) High School, where they met. They both joined the military and were stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
David Unger died just days short of his 22nd birthday. He would’ve turned 32 on Halloween night of this year.
The NFL partnered with Heroes United and Military Families United to honor stories like David Unger’s and others throughout Kansas City. The special sweatshirts were the tangible evidence of the effort, but the impact obviously went beyond just a simple name.
“I hope this is something he can hold onto for a long time,” Conley said. “It’s bigger than we give it credit for, that sacrifice. It’s something a lot of Americans can celebrate one or two days a year but not realize people have to live with these things for the rest of their lives.”
Conley even ended up giving his No. 17 jersey off his back to Misty Smith, going far beyond the original plan of the ceremony. Gage held on to the sweatshirt but didn’t have any immediate plans for what to do with the sentimental item.
“I don’t really know,” he said.
“He’s got time to figure it out,” Conley said.
Dismissed back to class a short time later, Gage Unger had already figured out what to do. He pulled the way-too-large sweatshirt over his head and bounded out of the media center to rejoin his friends.
The Farnans were expecting the arrival of Anthony Sherman, who pulled up the hill on Market Street in downtown Weston in a black Ford F-250.
Getting the formalities out of the way, the muscly fullback presented his pregame-worn sweatshirt to Patrick and Deann Farnan in the road out front of their house. Patrick Farnan marveled that the Chiefs were so detailed put “SPC” in front of his son’s name since Colby received his promotion to that rank posthumously after being killed at the age of 22 on Feb. 25, 2005 in Taji, Iraq.
For the occasion Monday afternoon, Patrick Farnan wore his custom No. 22 season-ticket holder Chiefs jersey with Farnan across the back.
“This is a lot for me, for you to allow me to honor your son,” Sherman said.
Sherman ended up receiving mementos for his experience, as well.
Patrick Farnan gave him a commemorative Gold Star medallion necklace and two folded flags — one from a small one that spent time at Colby Farnan’s gravesite in Weston and another recently retired from the flag pole outside of the family home. Sherman then obliged a tour that started in the basement and moved upstairs throughout the house before finishing in the backyard.
The basement featured a seemingly even split of Chiefs memorabilia and reminders of Colby Farnan’s life. Patrick insisted Sherman sign a football helmet that already had other signatures of past Chiefs greats including Tony Gonzalez and Will Shields.
Sherman hesitantly put Sharpie to plastic, unsure if he should put his name with the others, but Patrick Farnan insisted his son, a passionate Chiefs fan, would love the unheralded fullback because he is “steady and always there.”
“I can’t tell you how much this guy means to me,” Patrick Farnan said while giving Sherman a pat on the back.
Sherman soaked in the whole interaction with little way to prepare for meeting the family.
The Chiefs only made two presentations Monday afternoon, giving those players a truly unique experience that went beyond the impactful opportunity to learn about a local veteran killed in action. A father of two young boys, Sherman tried to make the most of his time in Weston on a special day for the two Chiefs players and the families they were able to honor in person.
“I don’t know if you really can (prepare),” Sherman said. “For me, the military is such a big part of why we’re able to do what we’re able to do on Sundays — why we’re able to do anything on any day, not just Sundays. For them to have a son that they’ve lost doing something he believed in, it’s just one of those things where you don’t know exactly what to say. You just try to come in and show them love and be the support for them.
“I’m honored to do it because he’s given, they’ve given, a lot more that what I’ve given to this sport.”